One of CPJ’s primary mandates is to help governments understand what implications their decisions hold for people who are vulnerable and in need. So, what do we do when government decisions and policy put economic expansion ahead of caring for these very people?
It’s a question that speakers, former executive director of the National Council of Welfare (NCW) Sheila Regehr, and CPJ policy analyst Simon Lewchuk, raised at CPJ’s recent Annual General Meeting in Ottawa.
Their answer? We stay engaged. Both Sheila and Simon echoed the words of Dan Meades of Vibrant Communities Calgary, who maintains that in times like these, we are called to speak truth to power.
It is this commitment to public justice that CPJ friends and supporters gathered to celebrate at the 2012 AGM. The evening provided an opportunity to recount the work of CPJ in 2011, to renew a common vision for public justice in Canada, and to reflect on some of the challenges facing CPJ and other nongovernmental organizations in our effort to help build a more just, caring society.
A key challenge discussed at the meeting is the diminishing openness and access to truth itself—at least those truths that might counter prevailing economic theory. As Sheila pointed out, our present political climate is one of growing apprehension, as widespread government funding cuts to charitable organizations have sparked a fear of speaking out in public. The shutting down of numerous agencies that provide the facts needed to make knowledgeable, wise public policy decisions, particularly with concern to poverty, inequality, and human rights, undermines the ability to speak out in the first place.
As a former member of one those vital organizations, Sheila took the opportunity to highlight a few truths that must be acknowledged if we want to be a nation that cares for all its citizens.
The Truth about the Economy
First, Sheila emphasized that money has come to define our society. It guides the distribution of power, and serves as our common denominator, determining what is and what isn’t important in public policy-making.
It follows that our economic system is one that only measures and values paid market activity. This is problematic, said Sheila, because it leaves a vast amount of life qualities and essential human activity undervalued and uncompensated. This includes things like child development, good health, clean air, and positive social relations, which cannot simply be measured in monetary terms.
Sheila drew particular attention to the work of caregivers – namely women – whose labours, from child-rearing to housekeeping, are indispensable in society but remain uncompensated. Uncompensated equals vulnerability to poverty. She stressed that until we find some way to measure, value and compensate this essential economic activity, poverty, along with other societal ills, will remain endemic.
The Truth about the Poor
Sheila further challenged prevailing economic dogma by debunking a popular myth about the poor. Accepted economic theory holds that the more of something you have, the less motivated you are to get more of it. In other words, a person would put more effort into getting the first ice cream cone on a hot day than the second one. This theory drives the argument to keep welfare rates low because (in theory) that provides incentive for people to work harder.
But evidence suggests that this theory doesn’t hold for people in poverty, said Sheila. Citing the work of Charles Karelis, she explained that until people have their basic needs met, each additional dollar is actually more important than the last. Newfoundland and Quebec have demonstrated this by raising welfare rates for lone parents up to the basic needs level and finding that they are more, not less, inclined to be in the paid labour force.
The Truth about Power
In a time when power truly seems to rest in the hands of a few, and vigorous public debate is stifled, it is easy to become discouraged. But Sheila reminded listeners that power still resides outside of parliamentary halls. It resides in numbers, in intelligence and creativity, in boldness and conviction, and in collaboration and cooperation. It also resides in kindness – going after ideas and policies, not people.
Beyond this, there is power in Canada’s historical culture of moderation and reciprocity. For Canadians, leaders like Tommy Douglas and programs like public healthcare are iconic because we value the common good.
Power also resides in government and we can’t ignore that. Nor can we give up on our leaders. As Sheila reminded, it is still our billions of dollars in tax money the government spends every year. If we want the government to prioritize people before money, and invest our dollars in measures that lift people out of poverty instead of in prisons, pipelines and planes, we need to say so.
Citizens for Public Justice will continue to do its part in illuminating the realities of Canadian life for the most vulnerable in our society and calling our government to place human well-being and the integrity of creation ahead of economic growth. We will continue speak truth to power because that is our mandate, and because we know that to remain silent is to accept the status quo.